“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

Richard Deacon, Never Mind (1993-2017)

Courtesy Richard Deacon and Middelheim Museum

Does a ship replaced beam by beam remain the same vessel? Does a broom with 17 new heads and 14 new handles remain the same broom? Does a refabricated sculpture remain an original?

Never Mind once looked like a hull. So it is apt that Richard Deacon’s long running artwork be used to illustrate Theseus’s paradox, also now known as the paradox of Trigger’s broom.

In 1993 it must have been a thing of joy: pristine wood skilfully curved into the shape of a dirigible. The laminate finish reflected the surrounding trees and the sky into which it might have floated.

Now it looks more Roswell rumour than classical bark. This tells us a little about the digital age which was only just beginning in ’93.  Never Mind was put back together like a jet engine.

Stainlesss steel has been used for a full-scale replacement forged from notes and measurements. The legs are so polished that the Middelheim landmark really does now appear to float.

It still looks like it could travel; the unmanned voyage should be good for another 24 years. Will any of us be here in 24 years? Who cares, asks Never Mind. Just marvel at this precise workmanship.

Legally, at least, it is the same sculpture. Restored and recoated, say Middelheim Museum. A work in progress the catalogue and the app both seem to imply with the dates 1993-2017.

The art lies in the outline, the gradients, and the precise dimensions rather than the materials. If an object is a displacement and not a thing, that’s one response to the paradox above.

Never Mind can be seen at Middelheim Museum, Antwerp. Until 24 September it forms part of the Richard Deacon retrospective Some Time.


Chris Burden, Beam Drop Antwerp (2009)

I once knew a live music review to open with the following line: “Blur used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect. Damon was lowered from the roof in a giant TV set.”

The author, who was a colleague on the student newspaper I wrote for, accosted me in the bar and read his immortal opening for me. He was proud as punch.  I found it funny as hell.

Years later I want to paraphrase him and say: Chris Burden has also used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect…fifty steel beams were dropped from a crane into a pit of liquid concrete.

Because although Beam Drop is an epic, expensive, time-consuming and hazardous production, it is also in essence very simple. It is not far removed from dropping toothpicks into porridge.

Burden has gone to a whole lot of effort to monumentalise a pastime that a child might engage in. So Beam Drop is a grandiose response to the tired old sentiment, ‘My six year old could do that’.

Incidentally, there’s not a six year old on the planet who would not have enjoyed the performance of this piece. Your inner child should also respond to the outbreak of controlled violence.

I want to call Beam Drop harmless. But even eight years on, as the beams turn a plot of sculpture park lawn into a rusting pin cushion, the sight of this piece causes some visual disquiet.

The materials are industrial. The formation is random. The appearance is out of step with its natural surrounds. Created by a crane rather than a brush, on this scale, the piece appears to lack humanity.

But given the alternative use for steel girders (a corporate HQ in downtown Antwerp, say), we might decide that the wreckage here in Middelheim is an expression of rebellion and even redemption.

Beam Drop can be found at Middelheim Museum, Antwertp. Museum website is here.


Bedwyr Williams, Strafed (2012)

strafed

Strafing is the military practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons ranging from machine guns to auto cannons or rotary cannons.”

Armed with this knowledge, if not this hardware, we can safely say that Williams’ picnic suite appears to be the worse for an encounter with an airborne machine gun. In an English garden.

This piece can now be seen in the garage of a semi detached house on the fringes of Luton. Were it not for the swiss cheese look, this table and chairs would invite you to sit down for a lemonade.

But your aspirations have been punctured 1001 times with a drill bit (I would guess 8mm). A pair of cheerful sunseekers here would have been riddled with lead and each sprung a hundred leaks.

Such violence is out of proportion to a harmless pretension: the Great British pursuit of fresh air, conspicuous ownership of a small lawn, and proximity to the prize begonias. Or is the strike justified?

How many wars have been fought on behalf of people in suburban gardens, who enjoy peace and quiet, even as young combatants fall and families much like theirs become collateral damage?

Something about these stackable white chairs enrages artists. In 1990, it was Damien Hirst who called down a plague upon our twee seasonal dining arrangements, and I wrote about it here.

Of course, the 90s were innocent times. No one could foresee the creeping outbreak of a long war in which our guns, our planes, and even our sanctions would bring so much death to the Gulf.

That said, this mise-en-scène reads like friendly fire, a trigger happy over-reaction by a Spitfire ace. The destruction wrought in Strafed is out of time, out of place, out of hand.

You might ask: how could the neighbours have been so unlucky? And you might reflect: I could be next. After all, we are living through the ultimate SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).

Strafed could be seen in Sunridge Avenue Projects, Luton, as one of 11 works on show in the parental home of artist Dominic from Luton. It runs until June 4, by appointment.


Nicole Wermers, Untitled Chairs (2015)

wermers

Last night I dreamed about this, my least favourite piece of art from the 2015 Turner Prize exhibition in Glasgow. What you see, is what I thought I was getting: fur coats on chairs.

The coats are actually sewn around the chairs. So this is presented as a comment on claiming space in an urban environment. And about design. And about feminism. But I wasn’t dreaming about that.

And I don’t think I was dreaming about death, so I must have been dreaming about sex. Although until this point, Wermers’ furry chairs, with their parted fringes, had flown under the erotic radar.

Or was it plainly death, after all? How many creatures were bred for slaughter to make these coats and where are the coat owners? God knows you feel their absence.

The catalogue will draw your attention to the fact the chairs are a Marcel Breuer design classic. But in art sometimes, as in poetry, meaning is just the meat with which the burglar distracts the dog.

Let’s call it a poem, not only to paraphrase TS Eliot there*, but so we can allow it complete semantic ambiguity. (Another crazy aspect of my dream: Wermers was supposedly referencing a popular poet.)

It appears the artist has form with this kind of thing. Double Sand Table is a 2007 work which also plays with modern design. “I had to keep thinking of them”: so says critic and poet Barry Schwabsky.

That is from the catalogue too. Was I dreaming myself into the shoes of a far more eminent writer? Or does this sculptor really have a knack for tickling the unconscious mind and provoking REM?

She’s up against an archive, a choral piece and an assemblage of house fixtures & fittings, so by default Werners’ chairs are the strongest visual image in this year’s show. My eyes are opened.

Nicole Wermers can be seen in Turner Prize 2015 at Tramway, Glasgow, until 17 January 2016.

*T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England [London: Faber, 1933]


Ben Woodeson, Rat Trap Neon (2013)

woodeson

There are plenty of ways into this show-stopping piece by UK artist Ben Woodeson. But explore just a little and you may find no way out. One or more of those rat traps will hold you fast.

Of course, that’s not an invitation to touch. The art itself would come off as badly as you. Spring the traps and you smash the neon. If all breakages must be paid for you’d be well out of pocket.

Still, it would make a good anecdote. And like most works by this artist there’s an implied narrative here in which something goes terribly wrong. In some ways, an accident would consummate them.

Due care was taken on my visit, but I still found myself pinned by the spectacle and then by thoughts about the short history of neon in art and the seductions of this element in urban spaces.

Woodeson’s piece throws off a surprising amount of heat. All artworks aspire to be a focal point, but this has shades of a campfire, at once the beginnings of civilisation and heart of its dangers.

To toast a reindeer chop or even a metaphorical marshmallow, as we are surely doing now, is to be consumed by whatever society comes together on these occasions. Again, no exit.

Woodeson sets the bait with an arrangement of abstract forms, in a material which is surely the best metonym for contemporary art. The piece is cynical in that way. He knows his vermin well.

But these loose forms suggest offcuts of neon, as if left over from the work of another, less risky artist. Of course all serious artists take risks; just not all of them would break your finger.

Rat Trap Neon was on show in Ben Woodeson: Obstacle at Berloni, London, between 29 May and 1 August 2015. You can read my 2014 interview with the artist on The Learned Pig.


Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988)

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It’s the hair on the chimp. It’s as tousled as that of a Greek god. It’s as gilded as that of a Catholic saint. But it renders Bubbles more human than even Michael himself could have hoped for.

Growing up in the 1980s, the name and existence of this pet monkey was household knowledge. It boosted the pop star’s brand, but he might not have wanted the relation reified quite like this.

If the ape looks wiser than his years, M.J. looks dumber and more vacant. This is based on a photo in which he actually holds the gaze of the camera. Here, he looks away and dreams.

With the benefit of hindsight, those were nightmares, and we should have seen the dangers coming. What kind of a grown man dresses up a chimpanzee as his boon companion?

Bubbles has been anthopomorphed twice, once by his tailor, then once again by this courtly portrait. That is doubly funny. And the financial value of the finished work is a triple punchline.

Koons often talks about the removal of judgement, the acceptance of self. He is either the world’s greatest cynic or the world’s richest naif. Perhaps he has been both, one after another.

At Monday’s press preview at the Guggeheim in Bilbao, he came across like a holy man, advising assembled hacks to journey within themselves and allow his work to affirm our presence.

Collectors love this schtick; official religions condemn them as camels faced with eyes of needles. And yet art allows even the most worldly among us to transcend our earthly realities.

It says something that even if you own a yacht and a blue chip art collection, you still want to rise above it all, to buy back your soul. Perhaps Michael Jackson and Bubbles should move us to pity.

But this is an artist with a midas touch, rendering a young performer who was once just as bankable. So in this case money is as frivolous as gold petals, happiness is as fragile as porcelain.

There are four editions of this work and by fortunate coincidence I saw two of them with a week or so. One is at Astrup Fearnley in Oslo and the other is on show at the Jeff Koons retrospective in Bilbao. That exhibition runs until 27 September 2015.


The Chapman Brothers, Sturm und Drang (2015)

sturm und drang

To hear this described, you might imagine something on a more imposing scale: a blasted tree hung with bodies of soldiering age, the reconstruction of a Goya etching.

But the truth is, Sturm und Drang looks a bit like a toy. This wicked bronze plays out in the shadow of the viewer, as if these dead were sent into battle in our name.

And that’s not a million miles from the way in which wars operate. How many are to be killed on our behalf in our comfortable lifetimes? If we consider ourselves moral, the joke is on us.

Or if we consider ourselves rational, these grinning corpses might say otherwise. From the 1760s to the 1780s, Sturm und Drang was a German movement which celebrated passion and nature.

But the artists don’t seem like Romantic (or even proto-Romantic) types. This piece is ironic about Goya, ironic about German literature, and ironic about anyone who takes the above seriously.

Cadavers are not the stuff of enlightenment statuary. This piece presents you with skeletal forms which you could play like a xylophone and entrails they are yet to relinquish to dogs.

Since the entirety is in monochromatic bronze, the forms emerge slowly. The faces come to you as goblin masks; maggots are having a time of it. The Chapmans have been to the joke shop.

That’s one place I would love to be a (plastic) fly on the wall. It says something that two of our most fêted artists source their materials from a realm of cheap costumes and tricks.

A pity that’s where we’ve ended up, and nowhere could be further from the culture wars of the 18th century. That’s the Chapmans for you: nihilists who must only get out of bed to laugh standing up.

Sturm und Drang is now on permanent view at Ekeberg Sculpture Park, Oslo.


Nathan Coley, You Imagine What You Desire (2014)

nathan coley

What a difference a new occasion makes. The last installation of You Imagine What You Desire was over 17,000 km away at a Biennial in Sydney. Now it appears in a festival in Brighton.

But geography is the least of it. In Sydney it was on a gallery facade; in Brighton it is in an ancient church. It’s from the streets of a big, young city to a reflective space in a small, old world one.

So what gets imagined in a church and what gets desired? Well, heaven obviously, but also hell. It is the go-to place for imagining the outcomes of our actions, for guidance in the way we live our lives.

You might ask why anyone would desire a burning pit. But perhaps we like to be kept in line, on some level. And a sense of justice is useful to both society and the individual. So why not.

The builder’s scaffold which holds these letters is blunt about this. It too is utilitarian. And here it tells us that imagination and desire are the pole and grip structure of our morality.

But a scaffold is temporary and the fairground lights remind us there are plenty more things and people to desire in this seaside town of ours. Out there, on the pier, desire is still a thrill ride.

There are lots of risks, but few spiritual consequences on the pier. It is a very modern institution in that way. So Coley brings the amusement park into the last place you might expect to find it.

After all, Saint Nicholas’ is the oldest church in town. The pier may be one of our best known landmarks but, until now, the twain have never met. They have to turn off the lights during worship.

So, apologies to Sydney, and all future venues. But this really belongs in Brighton, and you can’t say that about too much art. More is to be desired, even if it be hard to imagine.

You Imagine What You Desire is a HOUSE/Brighton Festival co-production and can be seen at Saint Nicholas’s, Brighton, until May 24 2015.

Read my review of Nathan Coley at Brighton Festival on The Arts Desk.


Richard Serra, The Matter of Time (1994-2005)

Photo: Elliot Levitt

To some degree this is art for the feet. Serra’s eight sculptures invite you to walk them in sequence. In fact they demand it. How else will you get to see them?

Thus it takes half an hour to simply cover the ground of this semi-permanent show in the Arcelor-Mittal Gallery here at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

It is a large space and the sculptures make it even larger. You trace a path through spirals which appear larger inside than out. You encounter barriers dividing the room.

All the while, at some atavistic level, you experience fear that one of these forged steel slabs will lean too far in and crush you. Or you experience this as thrill.

Rusty steel may not be the most eye-catching of materials. But it is hard to imagine more of a spectacle in any gallery than this biggest-ever group of Serra works.

Those who believe artists must work hard at feats beyond the range of “my three year old,” should be well pleased with this piece of monumental maze-making.

It weighs about 1,000 tons. Individual pieces have been engineered to the nearest tenth of a millimetre. Their journey from a German forge to the Basque region was epic.

It is fitting that this gravity-deying consignment came by boat. Serra recounts how as a boy he was taken to witness the launch of a tanker ship in Brooklyn.

After it slipped down the launch, the watching crowd held its breath as this vessel first sank and then rose to a state of sea-worthy floatation.

“All the raw material that I needed is contained in that memory,” the artist has said. It is a great story and indeed floating ships and flying planes should fascinate sculptors.

Visitors to The Matter of Time have two ways of approach this work. They can lose themselves on ground level or take an aerial view from a balcony on level one.

If anything, the balcony makes Serra’s gallery look even more precarious. To enjoy this takes a measure of faith. And so the material gives rise to the immaterial.

Perhaps that is the real effect of time on matter: some manner of transcendence, as the 25-year exhibition slowly turns amber with rust and we ourselves go grey.

These works can be seen at the Guggenheim, Bilbao. Check gallery website for more details.


Jeremy Deller, The Bruce Lacey Experience (2012)

This in-depth documentary about a great living artist premiered at Brighton Festival not so long after network TV screened an in-depth doc about its maker Jeremy Deller.

The results were two quite different films. But the subjects have more in common than both having worked together on The Bruce Lacey Experience.

Like Deller, Lacey has fingers in many pies. As this documentary shows he is a musician, a builder of robots, an unrepentant stager of happenings and a former star of the Goon Show.

But this is not the first time Lacey has captured the imagination of another creative spirit. A look at his Wikipedia page will tell you he is widely celebrated in music and film.

So the slightly contentious question is this: which of these two artists has incorporated the other into their own body of work…

Does Lacey join former miners, brass bands and wrestler Adrian Street in the parthenon of subjects pertaining to Jeremy Deller?

Or has Deller become yet another footnote in the life of octagenarian Bruce Lacey, who by 1962 was already the star of a celebratory Ken Russell film?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The Bruce Lacey Experience will surely bring the elder artist to a wider audience than Lacey can find in one of his regular appearances in the depths of Norfolk.

Besides, the results look as if Jem has fixed it for his subject to complete a boyhood dream and take a spin in an RAF jet, or at the very least given him an excuse.

Tracking shots of a model plane ‘flying’ around the Lacey home build to breathtaking footage from the cockpit of the real thing as it swoops over the English countryside.

Silver Machine by Hawkwind plays. You may not even like Hawkwind (I don’t (yet)), but I would defy anyone not to be uplifted by this trip through an illustrious career.

The Bruce Lacey Experience has its official premiere at the British Film Institute Southbank, London, on 5 July. Later in the month (from the 16th for three months) a show of Lacey’s work co-curated by Deller can be found at Camden Arts Centre, London.